Presumption of innocence doctrine is topic of scientific paper

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
Beverly Creamer, (808) 389-5736
Media consultant, William S. Richardson School of Law
Posted: Mar 18, 2014

Justin Levinson
Justin Levinson
Scott Sinnett
Scott Sinnett

New published research raises questions about whether black defendants can receive a fair trial in the federal justice system – making the case that standard jury instructions regarding the “presumption of innocence” actually shift a jury’s attention toward black faces.

The study by researchers at the University of Hawai‘i and Rutgers University was published today in the scientific journal “PLOS ONE,” and offers strong evidence that juries hearing those instructions from the judge are immediately more attentive to black faces than white. This is important, as similar shifts in attention toward black faces have been shown to demonstrate the implicit association between the racial category of black and being guilty.

By comparison, when these instructions are not given, jurors look equally at both black and white faces.

The presumption of innocence doctrine has been portrayed as one of the bedrocks of fairness in the American legal system, designed to protect innocent citizens from wrongful conviction. This principle, widely portrayed in the mass media through the phrase “innocent until proven guilty,” is supposed to mean that unless jurors find a defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, they should not convict.

These new research results question whether this bedrock doctrine actually is fair.  “I interpret these results as indicating the presumption of innocence doctrine may be corrupted by a mix of cultural stereotypes that have overpowered the vast importance of its protective purpose,” said Law Professor Justin Levinson, director of the Culture and Jury Project at the William S. Richardson School of Law on the UH Mānoa campus.

“It’s cause for concern,” agrees co-author Scott Sinnett, Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology, although he and Levinson both acknowledge that future research is needed to solidify the link between the presumption of innocence and a potential backfiring effect that could be harmful to black defendants. “We don’t have a direct measure yet to say if someone were to hear the ‘presumption of innocence’ instructions they would be more likely to attribute guilt to a black defendant.”

Levinson said he believes “it’s too early to say” that the presumption of innocence jury instructions should be changed, adding that additional research is needed to confirm that the biased attention effect that he and Sinnett found causes harm to black defendants. But he said the study's results raise concerns.  Said Levinson, “It certainly worries us. If, theoretically, the presumption of innocence has been corrupted by decades of racialized media coverage of crime, including crime dramas in which the presumption of innocence often appears in the same scene with a guilty black defendant, we would expect the same results.”

The UH researchers were joined by Dr. Danielle Young, a post-doctoral fellow at the Rutgers University Psychology Department who is the lead author of the study.

In designing their study, the researchers utilized 61 mock jurors – including 24 Asian-Americans, 16 European Americans, and 21 others with mixed race backgrounds. These "jurors" were seated in a jury box in groups of up to six at a time, and shown video instructions from a federal judge that either included the presumption of innocence instructions or did not. Thus, half the jurors received the presumption of innocence instructions, and the other half received no such instructions.

Immediately following this video, the jurors underwent what is referred to as a dot-probe task. In this task, two faces are displayed on a computer monitor for a brief period of time, after which a small gray dot appears where one of the faces had been. The jurors’ task was to immediately press a key on their computer as soon as they saw the dot. The underlying logic is that if the participant’s attention has somehow been directed toward one of the faces, he or she will be faster to respond to the dot that appears where that face had been. The authors note that the faces used had previously been tested and matched for attractiveness and stereotypicality.

The study results showed that, after mock jurors received the presumption of innocence instructions, they responded more quickly to dots that appeared where the black face had been when compared to the white face. Essentially, simply hearing the presumption of innocence instructions appears to direct attention to the racial category of black. This did not occur when the presumption of innocence instructions were not given.

The researchers noted that previous research using the same methodology has found that showing study participants photos of weapons causes similar visual attention for black faces. And related research by two of the researchers (Levinson and Young) has shown that people automatically associate blackness with “guilty” and whiteness with “not guilty.”

The study was done in part to try to explain large discrepancies in incarceration rates in U.S. prisons.  “Black Americans are still imprisoned at disproportionately high rates that cannot be explained simply by differing underlying crime rates or severity,” said Levinson. “Is there a relationship between the presumption of innocence and racial disparities in the criminal justice system?”

Levinson said that the next research project they are looking at is “testing whether our results do indeed affect the ultimate decision of jurors.” He added,“We do plan follow-up studies to confirm how powerful this finding is.”

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